Doughnut or salad? How the ‘busyness cult’ impacts what people buy


Should you remind your customers how busy they are?

This was the topic explored by researchers Kim, Wadhwa and Chattopadhyay, who were interested in how the perception of busyness impacted consumer decision-making.

Past research has suggested time pressure leads customers to rely on feelings rather than facts, resulting in lapsed self-control and a preference for indulgent products. When short on time, in other words, we cut corners and prefer expedience to virtue, and doughnuts to salad.

This research was slightly different because the researchers investigated the perception of busyness rather than whether customers were actually under any time pressure. 

The difference, as the researchers state, is “people perceive themselves as busy when they simply feel they are occupied with work or have a lot of work to do, whereas feeling pressed for time is triggered by the concern for insufficient time to complete the tasks at hand”.

Focusing on mindset in this instance is important because ‘busy’ has become a badge of honour, whether or not it is objectively true. People perceive busy people to be of high status, and being busy is increasingly related to how people feel about themselves. For many, busyness increases one’s sense of self-importance.

Busyness enhances self-control

In the first of seven studies, the researchers monitored items purchased in a university cafeteria, focusing on how healthy they were.

When signage in the café cued students to think about being busy (“good to go for busy students”),  as opposed to a neutral sign (“good to go for summer students), they chose significantly fewer unhealthy items and items with significantly fewer calories.

In a second study, participants who reviewed a print ad for an indulgent fast-food outlet were less willing to purchase the bacon burger when the ad carried a busyness-related tagline.

Additional studies found:

  • Participants who were primed to think about busyness and then offered a cookie were less likely to eat one framed indulgently as a “delicious sugar” cookie but (surprisingly) more likely to eat one called a “healthy oatmeal” cookie;
  • A busy mindset increased the preference for extra credit work over a free day;
  • A busy mindset only increased self-control for those who believed being busy was good — those with a low work ethic were unaffected; and
  • A busy mindset increased self-control when it was not accompanied by a high-level of time pressure.

Key takeaways

Up until now, the theory in marketing has been to link busyness with indulgent choices — such as ‘you’re a busy person, you deserve doughnut’-type messages. And in some contexts, I still think this applies.

Research by Shiv and Fedorikhin in 1999 showed, for example, people are more likely to opt for an indulgent snack after their self-controlling, cognitively intense system 2 has been depleted. When people are tired, in other words, they opt for ease.

But being fatigued is not necessarily the same as being busy, and this latest study suggests reminding people of their busyness actually makes them think about their self-importance, and through that, increases their self-control. A more appropriate marketing message would be ‘you’re a busy person, you deserve the best!’

I think the bottom line is self-identity. We know from research by Patrick and Hagtveddt in 2017 that saying ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’ can enhance self-control. Now we have research which shows reminding people of their identity as a busy person increases the odds they will resist temptation. For us in business, it just reiterates the need to understand your customer’s world and support how they see themselves. If you are selling something healthy or virtuous, cueing busyness may work in your favour. If you are selling an indulgence, talking about fatigue or a lack of time may be a better bet.

NOW READ: Stockings filled with coal: As Roger David collapses, can retail survive until Christmas?

NOW READ: How to embed behavioural economics in your business


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